The Supreme Court’s recent rulings overturning desegregation plans by school districts in Seattle and Louisville were the focus of a special panel discussion sponsored by Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice on September 6.
In June, a sharply divided Court restricted the ability of public school districts to use race to determine which schools students can attend, a decision that could severely limit integration programs nationwide. The justices split along ideological grounds, with five justices ruling that the school placement schemes under review violated the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.
Like most of the analysis since the decision, the panel discussion focused on the concurring opinion filed by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy ’61, who cast the deciding vote with the court’s conservatives to strike down the school plans but specifically declined to follow key parts of the plurality opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr. ’79.
Kennedy wrote: “Parts of the opinion by the Chief Justice imply an all-too-unyielding insistence that race cannot be a factor in instances when, in my view, it may be taken into account. The plurality opinion is too dismissive of the legitimate interest government has in ensuring all people have equal opportunity regardless of their race.”
Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion has become a source of hope for those who support racial integration efforts, said panelist Nadine Cohen, staff counsel on the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association. “The idea that we can be color-blind in our education policies really ignores the reality of life and race in America today,” she said. “I think Justice Kennedy has left a window open for us, and we need to climb through that window, but not by contorting desegregation programs we know have worked.”
Another panelist, Anurima Bhargava, director of the education group in the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, said Kennedy’s opinion served as a “stop-gap” against the majority opinion, which would have otherwise gone a lot further towards outlawing desegregation efforts in public schools.
Cynthia Valenzuela, director of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, admitted that the Court’s decision has already made it more difficult for public school districts in Arizona and California to implement desegregation policies. Latinos in particular have already faced more public school segregation since the ruling, she said.
Other panelists included: Dennis Parker from the American Civil Liberties Union, Khin Mai Aung from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and john a. powell from the Kirwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity.
The panel event also commemorated Charles Hamilton Houston’s 112th Birthday. Professor Charles Ogletree, the Houston Institute’s executive director, and Charles Hamilton Houston, Jr. were on hand to unveil a portrait of the Institute’s namesake. It will hang at Harvard Law School.